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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

Up from the heritage of monsters

LONDON — They didn't invite the city fathers of Ferrol, the birthplace of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the bloody tyrant who ruled Spain from 1938 to 1973, so the conference can't just have been about fascist dictators.

They didn't invite the mayor of Tokyo, home-town of Gen. Hideki Tojo, who led Japan into World War II, so it wasn't just about bad men who were leaders in that war. So what WAS it about?

According to Johannes Waidbacher, mayor of the Austrian city of Braunau that hosted the "Contemporary History Days" conference, it has always been about how to deal with the legacy of living in the city where Adolf Hitler was born and grew up. This is the 20th year that Braunau has held the conference, and they still don't have a good answer. But this year, at least, they came up with a different way of asking the question.

In addition to academics reading papers like "From the burden to the place of learning: Dachau and contemporary history," they invited notables to represent the hometowns of Italian leader Benito Mussolini and Soviet leader Josef Stalin: Mayor Giorgio Frassinetti of the central Italian town of Predappio and Dr. Lasha Bakradze, head of the Literature Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia. The idea was that they could all commiserate about the moral burden of living in a town that nurtured a tyrant.

By the way, if you are about to protest that the only Lasha Bakradze you've ever heard of is a Georgian actor known for such fine films as "The Aviatrix of Kazbek" (2010), don't come to me for help. Maybe there are two of them. It doesn't matter. The point is that neither the Lasha Bakradze we all know and love nor Dr. Lasha Bakradze, head of the Literature Museum in Tbilisi, actually comes from Gori, where Stalin grew up.

Unfortunately, they couldn't get any official from Gori to come. The good burghers of Braunau may writhe with guilt about their city's heritage — "If, like me, you live in a town which is synonymous with Hitler, it becomes unbearable," said local historian Florian Kotanko — but the citizens of Gori are not in the least embarrassed about having unleashed Stalin (born Ioseb Jughashvili) on the world. In fact, they're proud of it.

The Stalin Museum on the center of town is the main tourist attraction, and until last year a very large statue of the Soviet dictator and mass murderer stood in front of the City Hall. (It has now been moved to the museum.) You can visit Stalin's armored railway carriage, see the wooden hut where he was born, spend hours immersed in Stalin memorabilia. Stalin is doing more for the city in death than he ever did in life.

As for Predappio, the leftwing mayor of that town did go to Braunau, declaring that places where dictators were born should be "on the front line of democracy," but most of his fellow-citizens don't seem to agree. In fact they have turned Predappio into an open-air memorial to Mussolini.

There are shops selling "cute little trinkets and souvenirs such as Nazi flags, white-power wine, Hitler snow globes, or Mussolini batons with which to hit people," as a tourist blog puts it. The highlight of the tour is a visit to Mussolini's private residence, built after the Italian dictator seized control of the whole country in 1922. Italian fascists go to Predappio each year to commemorate the "March on Rome" that brought him to power.

So full marks to Braunau for trying, but the Austrians (and the Germans) really are the exceptions. Even more Russians than Georgians think that Stalin was a great man, despite the tens of millions of deaths he caused. Most Italians don't feel apologetic about Mussolini. Napoleon, who was just as murderously thuggish, is positively venerated by the French. And one of the most popular boys' names in Turkish is Cengiz (as in Genghis Khan).

It would be nice if people remembered what the killers and tyrants in their national past were really like, but they don't. The English know all about Henry VIII's wife-killing habits, but he is not regularly condemned as a merciless tyrant. As for Mao Zedong, the greatest killer since Genghis Khan, the Chinese Communist Party says he was "three parts bad, seven parts good," and most Chinese accept that judgement.

Relax. It's not worth getting excited about. Nobody in Russia is sending millions to their deaths today. France is not ruled by a dictator, and neither is Italy (although it is currently ruled by a crook who is also a fool). The Turks are not racing across the steppes on horseback massacring captured cities as they go, and Britan's Queen Elizabeth II has shown great forbearance in not murdering her spouse.

It's not how people see their history that matters. The particular horrors of the Holocaust have forced the Germans and Austrians to face up to their recent past more honestly, but most people, most of the time, prefer the sugar-coated version. And yet they do care about democracy, and they really don't think that mass killing is OK.

Most countries have a delusional relationship with their national history, but the world really is more democratic than it has ever been. And less violent, too, though you'd never know it from watching the news.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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